The Tao of sourdough?

IMG_4760I will never make any kind of claim for understanding sourdough because I don’t; and neither would I write any kind of definitive guide to it for two reasons”

  • I never seem to reach a point where I feel there’s nothing left to learn, and –
  • I hate the way books so often intimidate and make our efforts feel pointless.

On the other hand I well remember leaving art school with a degree in ceramics and remarking to one of the lecturers that it would have been helpful if they had taken the time to teach me some techniques and not left it all to me to find out. So in that spirit I feel it’s OK to share some of the facts I wish someone had told me about years ago. So herewith the Potwell Inn bakery shortcourse, completely free of charge.

  1. Bread flour  – For too long I thought that the stronger the flour (ie. the higher the  protein level) the better the bread would be. Not true! The loaf in the photo is made with a third soft wheat flour and only two thirds strong bread flour. Obviously there’s a crossover point where you get a cakey texure but 1/3 to 2/3 seems to work with the flours I use. Should I say what they are?  Well no, because anyone can bake beautiful bread using whatever ingredients are to hand, as long as they’re prepared to experiment a bit – which leads me to –
  2. Complete failure is very rare – Sometimes they’ll slump, and sometimes they’ll stick to the banneton and sometimes they just sulk.  But the resulting bread is almost always better than anything you could buy.
  3. Rice flour I wish I had a pound for every mixture I’ve tried to dust the dough and help it to release. Of all the things I’ve tried, rice flour works best.
  4. Getting a hot base –  feel free to buy a lump of granite or a hi-tech widget made from recycled space shuttle nose-cone tiles, but I use a cast iron griddle for Welsh Cakes that was incredibly cheap and holds a tremendous amount of heat. I never clean it.
  5. Kneading –You can use a machine but you’ll learn more about the quality of a dough in ten minutes of hand kneading than you will in a year of tiny changes to the recipe. Flour is a natural product and even branded flours can vary from batch to batch.  Wholemeal flour takes more water than white, but beyond that, the exact proportions can vary from week to week. It’s easy to add a bit more flour if a dough feels too sticky but it’s horrible trying to add water to a too-stiff dough, so start wet and stop as soon as you can.
  6. Sourdough takes up too much time –  first make the batter, say ten minutes maximum, and then go and do something else for the rest of the day or night – whichever suits you best. Second, add the final amount of flour, the salt and some olive oil bearing in mind point 5 above and knead it for ten minutes or until it just ‘feels’ right. Let’s say that takes you another 15 minutes. Then go away again for a another 12 hours or so. Third, fold the dough over on itself gently a few times and form it into a ball and put that in a banneton which you’ve copiously dusted with rice flour. That takes another 5 minutes. Leave it for another three or four or however many hours it takes to look perky.  Finally turn it out, slash the top and bake it as hot as you can get the oven for ten to fifteen minutes and with steam if you have it.  Then turn the oven down a bit and bake for another 30 – 35 minutes. Elizabeth David suggested in her book “Bread and Yeast Cookery” that you’re trying to imitate the falling temperature of a wood fired oven. You have to be there for some of that bit – so let’s say another twenty minutes of your undivided attention. So that adds up to not a lot more than an hour of actual work. If you’re away at work, bake at the weekend or maybe kick the batter off before work on Friday morning and finish baking before lunch on Saturday.
  7.  Have you got a posh steam oven? Yes but for the first 47 years I didn’t and I still made bread. I’ve got a very small and cheap car – priorities I suppose.
  8. You need to buy a starter – No you don’t.  If it smells nice it’s probably OK – no faff, just dark rye flour and water and lots of time.
  9. Is it a spiritual experience? Only in the sense that you have to be ‘in the moment’. In that respect it’s just like every other craft skill, you have to have a dialogue with the material.  It’s not MDF board!
  10. Why bother? Because £4.00 for a large loaf is ludicrous however big the baker’s beard is, and very soon your bread will taste better than theirs, I promise.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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